The Romanian Invention That Had Ford and GM in a Bidding War

In 1923, Romanian engineer Aurel Persu concluded that aerodynamics played an important role not just up in the air but down on earth, too. By introducing wheels inside a car's frame, he successfully built the very first aerodynamic vehicle. 

Aurel Persu car
Photo: courtesy of Dimitrie Leonida Technical Museum

The renowned Tatra 77 may have been the very first serial-produced car with an aerodynamic design, but it wasn’t the first-ever prototype. Ten years before the first Tatra was finished, Aurel Persu, a Romanian engineer and car pioneer, revolutionized the world of automobiles when he placed the wheels inside the body of a car, creating the world’s first perfectly aerodynamic vehicle.

With a drag coefficient of 0.28 – at times even as low as 0.22 – this 1923 prototype built by a specialist in airplane aerodynamics still competes with some of today’s most envied cars, such as the Porsche Carrera. In a time when horses were more efficient than horsepower, the performance reached by Persu’s aerodynamic automobile was astonishing: 80 km/hour and a curve speed average of 60km/hour. So why don’t we hear about Persu’s invention the same way we hear about Tatra?

The answer is quite simple and, frankly speaking, quite admirable, too. The car received a German patent in 1924 and an American one three years later. Other countries, including Switzerland, England, Belgium, France, and Austria, were quick to understand the significance and soon followed suit.

Aurel Persu: before Ford and GM

It wasn’t long before Ford and General Motors were both vying to acquire the patent. However, in the name of dignity, self-respect, and dedication to his work, the Romanian inventor declined both offers. As it turns out, the two car giants were interested in buying the patent – but not in mass-producing the car. They could not guarantee its inventor that the patent would ever see the light of the day. Faced with such conditions, Persu refused to sell the patent, and, after having driven the car over 120,000 km, he personally donated it – still fully functioning – to the Dimitrie Leonidas Museum in Bucharest, where it can be admired to this day.

This year we celebrate 100 years since the introduction of the wheels inside the car. One century since aerodynamic principles started being applied in car design. Principles that still today are indispensable to every car manufacturer. Remember next time you get into a car: there was once a very bright Romanian genius named Aurel Persu, who gave us the comfort and efficiency we today take for granted.

Naomi Gherman

Master student in Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations at Babeș-Bolyai University, eager to share more about our world's most fascinating stories and people. Romania-based reader, writer and content creator with a strong interest in journalism, foreign languages and politics.

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